‘ALIENS’: A BATTLE-SCARRED TREK INTO ORBIT
The box-office numbers are in, and for once the advance word--"the buzz"--was on the money.
In its first five days, “Aliens” took in a healthy $13.4 million at 1,437 theaters. Seven years after Ridley Scott’s space- noir classic “Alien” first arrived, “Aliens” looks like the runaway hit of the summer and may even surpass “Top Gun” when all the counting is done.
But “Aliens” almost didn’t make it to the screen.
In an era when it seems as if half the current releases are sequels feeding off yesterday’s fare, “Aliens” almost crashed and burned. At one point, 20th Century Fox, the studio releasing the film, nearly sold the rights to the sequel to the producers of “Rambo.” During pre-production of “Aliens,” director James Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd (Cameron’s wife) quit over a long-running budget feud and their insistence on keeping Sigourney Weaver as the star.
Today, the lines for “Aliens” snake around the block even for weekday mid-afternoon screenings. The line to take credit for making “Aliens” is only slightly shorter. If movie-making is a collaborative art, the story behind the making of “Aliens” offers classic evidence that the number of contributors increases exponentially with the success of a film.
What follows is a kind of captain’s log of the birth, near-death and ultimate triumph of a film that in hindsight looks like a project that couldn’t miss. Clearly, there were those who thought just the opposite--that “Alien” (which has taken in more than $100 million in worldwide ticket sales to date) was some kind of cinematic freak and that audiences had seen enough of the slimy parasitic killer. Those naysayers are suddenly hard to find.
Spring, 1983: Fox put the sequel into development after settling a protracted lawsuit brought by “Alien” producers David Giler, Gordon Carroll and Walter Hill over the disbursement of profits. The deal did not require the studio to release the film, just to put the project into development (paying a creative team to come up with a concept for the movie). While then-studio President Joe Wizan now says he endorsed the idea, several insiders say others were cool to it. “Norman Levy (then vice chairman at the studio) wouldn’t even hear about it,” Giler said. “He thought it would be a disaster.”
Levy, now a marketing consultant, denied he was against making “Aliens.” “I don’t recall ever saying that. It was a movie I wanted to make,” he said. “I was concerned about the cost and whether or not we were in a posture to take on a big-budget film like that. It was a question of economics.” (“Aliens” was eventually made for about $18.5 million, before expenses for prints and advertising.)
But Giler insisted that Levy was strongly opposed. “I was introduced to John Davis at a bar one night, and I asked him, ‘When is your dad (Marvin Davis, owner of the studio at the time) going to make the sequel?’ He said, ‘Never. Norman Levy is going to save my father millions by not making that movie.’ ”
John Davis, now an independent producer at Fox, remembered meeting Giler (he named the bar as Kathy Gallagher’s) but said he did not remember any conversation about “Aliens.” “It’s simply not a true story,” he said.
Summer, 1983 : Larry Wilson, a development executive working for the Phoenix Co. (Giler’s production company), was searching for writers for “Aliens.” He came across a script called “The Terminator” by James Cameron and couldn’t put it down. “It was electrifying,” Wilson recalled. “I put the script on David’s (Giler) desk and said, ‘This is the guy.’ ” Giler and partners Hill and Carroll quickly agreed on Cameron, and he was hired to do a “treatment” (a short-form version of a script that lays out the story for a movie).
Fall, 1983 : The 42-page treatment, written in three days, was submitted to Fox where, because of lack of support for the idea, the project went into its own form of hyper-sleep. Said Cameron: “An executive told me he didn’t like the treatment because it was wall-to-wall horror and it needed more character development.” At one point a deal was almost closed to sell the rights to the sequel to producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanja (“Rambo”) but the lawyers couldn’t close the deal. Prospects for a sequel looked dim.
July, 1984 : Independent producer Larry Gordon was hired to replace former studio production head Joe Wizan. Finding few projects in the production pipeline, he looked for possible sequels and came across the “Aliens” file. “I couldn’t believe it hadn’t already been done,” Gordon said. “In this business there are those decisions you agonize and lose sleep over, but this was so obvious. It was a no-brainer.”
Gordon, who had worked with Walter Hill on “48 HRS.,” revived the project and agreed to let Cameron write and direct the script after seeing “The Terminator.” The deal also included Gale Anne Hurd, then Cameron’s collaborator and girlfriend, as producer.
February, 1985 : The script was turned in just hours before a threatened writers’ strike. It was extremely well received at the studio, but there were concerns about the cost. Hurd insisted that it could be made for $15.5 million; a budget estimator for Fox put the price tag at a frightening $35 million.
So began the fiercest battling over the project.
According to studio insiders, Fox Chairman Barry Diller had concerns about the cost and insisted that if “Aliens” was made, it would have to be made “at a price” (relatively inexpensively). According to Hurd and Cameron, Fox said the studio would make the movie for $12 million. Cameron and Hurd quit. “We walked out and said, ‘Thanks, we’ll do something else.’ ” Cameron said.
During this period, production head Larry Gordon and studio Chairman Diller battled over the budget. “Barry gave the final yes and he could have said no,” said Gordon with a broad smile. “But it was a yes that probably took away one of my arteries.” Director Cameron said Gordon was the one responsible for getting “Aliens” on the green-light track: “Unquestionably, this was Larry’s picture.” (Gordon, who has been diagnosed as needing coronary-bypass surgery, resigned as studio president in January; he is now an independent producer on the Fox lot.)
Diller took a reporter’s call but refused to comment on “Aliens.” Current Fox production president Scott Rudin said Diller was in fact supportive of “Aliens.” Said Rudin: “Do you really think any movie gets made here without his support?”
April, 1985 : The fight about “Aliens” was not limited to the budget. Cameron and Hurd insisted that Sigourney Weaver and only Weaver play the lead. But Fox executives argued that they could not publicly take such a position because that would severely crimp their negotiating posture. (If Weaver’s agent, ICM’s New York-based Sam Cohn, knew Fox had to have Weaver, he could inflate the asking price considerably.)
When Fox insisted that it would make “Aliens” with or without Weaver, Cameron and Hurd quit again, this time taking off for a honeymoon in Hawaii. Said Hurd: “We assumed it was a dead issue, and when we left for Hawaii we thought the movie was off.”
But when they returned, the movie was on--with Weaver as the star. According to those close to the negotiations, she was paid close to $1 million in compensation plus a percentage of the profits, the highest salary she has earned to date in her career.
September, 1985: “Aliens” finally started shooting on a London sound stage. After all the debate and questions about the budget, Hurd and Cameron brought in their movie on schedule and on budget. The studio loved the dailies and the buzz began to leak out: “Aliens” just might be the sleeper hit of the summer.
But there was one more bitter struggle preceding the film’s opening. Fox wanted a movie of two hours or less but Cameron’s print came in at a lengthy 2 hours, 17 minutes. Nowadays, studios rarely release movies longer than 2 hours, 5 minutes, because the length cuts the number of daily screenings from five to four, substantially reducing the box-office take.
For Fox to have the extra showing, Cameron would have had to cut 12 minutes.
Late April, 1986: As Cameron and Hurd were working on their final “mix” (joining sound and picture together), Rudin flew to London to see their cut. Said Cameron: “We were standing on this London sidewalk and Rudin asked us if there was anything that could be cut. But we felt that if we had to take out 12 more minutes, the movie wouldn’t make sense.” Rudin acquiesced.
In the long run, that decision may yield a bigger payoff for Fox.
Before “Aliens” opened, the studio closed a two-picture deal with Cameron, whose price will undoubtedly soar with the success of “Aliens.” In effect, Rudin traded the 12 minutes for two movies.
Might one of those two movies be “Aliens III?” Cameron said he’s not interested in another sequel. “We’ve said about all we can about ‘Aliens.’ ”
As the box-office bucks roll in, the folks at Fox may feel quite differently.
July, 1986: There’s talk at the studio of putting the third chapter into development.
This time, right away.